Heartthrob Cop. Cyberpunk Courier. Kung-fu Criminal. Hacker Christ. Keanu Reeves’ charm and consistency have kept him in the echelon of America’s movie-star sweethearts, particularly in an age where everything else has gone to complete shit. This September, Midwest Film Journal is shining a spotlight on some of his best roles. Replacement Quarterback. Garage Rockstar. Devil’s Advocate. Haunted Assassin. It’s a Keanu World Order. We’re just living in it.
Bogus is Better: Reflections on Bill & Ted
The usual reputation of sequels is that they are often victims of the capitalistic monstrosity of the sprawling synecdoche that is Hollywood — poor imitations of the originals attempting neither to further art nor the message of the act they have followed, existing only to give fans and fat cats more of the same. Sequels are so often phantoms of their former selves, with casts more sallow, stories more emaciated and direction more stiff. For every The Godfather Part II, there are legions like Son of the Mask or Jaws: The Revenge. The idea of sequels being poor is even a beloved part of our satirical zeitgeist in the form of the snowclone “Insert Film Here 2: Electric Boogaloo,” describing an unwelcome and unoriginal sequel.
I take a pretty narrow view on sequels, defining them specifically as the second movie. A third sequel, you say? Even more? Trilogies and franchises have strengths not afforded to a second movie. They simply do not have the obstacles that a second movie has to overcome. The third part of a trilogy is tasked with wrapping up questions asked in the first two, bringing ample opportunity to give the audience feelings of closure. And larger series? They may have the reputation of overstaying their welcome (outside of The Fast and the Furious, of course). But as the franchise grows, expectations tend to diminish. Even then, their dependency on established familiarity through callbacks and nostalgia can make franchises well past their expiration dates seem comfortable and charming.
The second film seems to have the highest expectations, commercially and artistically, as well as the greatest barrier to achieving them. Second films are rarely good and even more rarely better than the original.
So when we see one, we should cherish it.
I would argue this is the case when viewing the Bill and Ted movies. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey stands out as a successful sequel, overshadowing its predecessor in various and more rewarding ways.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is good. That’s both obvious and not obvious. It’s a weird movie. I mean, of course it is. There’s a time-traveling comedian-actor visiting the past from a future that’s dependent on rock music played by two guys who don’t yet know how to play music or string together a coherent thought. On the surface, Excellent Adventure is not a movie someone might seek out. More detrimental to its success, on paper at least, is that movies that don’t take themselves too seriously or aren’t particularly clever and are produced just because they are fun don’t tend to have a shelf life. To all observations, Bill & Ted could have easily been like a Mouse Hunt or Mixed Nuts — fine enough for a family visit to the movies when they’re first released, but not necessarily to watch when they’re streaming and certainly not worthy of purchase. These middling movies aren’t remarkable in any way and usually serve to exploit a popular figure’s career for box-office success.
But Excellent Adventure wasn’t fated in that way. Everyone seems to know its catchphrase (“Be excellent to each other”). Everyone seems to know at least the rough essence of Bill and Ted (except my co-worker, who is fresh of out college, makes me feel old and probably proves me wrong). Is it just because of Keanu Reeves? (Sorry, Alex Winter!) Is it the subtlety of some of the jokes?1 Is it the positivity of the message? Is it the unique, Brutal Legend–esque world-building of its future?
I’m not sure. Something substantial is there despite its forays into juvenile humor and its numerous shortcomings. While there’s a positive message somewhere, it feels tacked on and not at all explored throughout the movie. The plot keeps more to the theme of “What shenanigans would these historical figures get into if they were suddenly transferred to our time?” and it doesn’t really give us any lows or highs. We know it will be a happy ending immediately because the beginning of the film features Bill and Ted’s future “us-es” wrapping up their excellent adventure. That makes a card game gone wrong or an executioner’s axe not as scary during the course of the movie.
While the story is tight, its plot does seem to plod along in a “Character A does Action B in order to bring about Cause C” manner for the most part and turns more into a cavalcade of historical figures than an exploration of the characters or deeper dive into the stories of the main protagonists. Outside of a few all-too-brief entertaining moments with Socrates and Billy the Kid, Bill and Ted’s collection of historical figures starts feeling like a television whodunit — formulaic and predictable. IMDb says the writers knocked the script out in four days. It shows.
It’s particularly disappointing in the first film because Bill and Ted are treated as mankind’s eventual saviors. There is nothing about them that is uninteresting. Their drunken-master type of adventurism is exactly why we’re hungry to explore more. But we are left without any explanation of the hows, whys or whens of Bill and Ted. In fact, by the end of the film, Bill and Ted still can’t even play music. It’s a sadly apt metaphor for a film that seems to end up where it started alongside the characters. One would have hoped that instead of the boys going for extra credit that they spent a little more time learning about themselves and the importance of history — not just for their final grades but for themselves and their future.
Which brings me to some other questions: Why don’t Bill and Ted care in even a slackerish way about a goddamn time traveler coming to save them from — dun dun DUNNNN! — a history report? Speaking of that report, how come Bill and Ted get to partner up when no one else does? Why is it just history? Are they good enough at math? Why is the biggest foe a history report and not Ted’s struggle with his father (or Bill with his)? There was a lot of potential left behind, and maybe it’s because the movie was never meant to be taken seriously that such things are not explored. Still, we feel entertained by Excellent Adventure if not entirely fulfilled.
Bogus Journey succeeds in some significant places past which Excellent Adventure was eager to blow right on by. And as it tackles a more thoroughly provoking issue (religion), the audience has a better shot of leaving with a bigger sense of themselves. That’s something that motivates moviegoing.
In Bogus Journey, we immediately have a villain in De Nomolos (a weightier adversary for the bringers of world peace than a history report). The sequel also brings with it worthy adversaries in the Evil Robot Us-es (where Excellent Adventure’s primary adversary was … a broken antenna?), a more robust ally in Death (which we were longing for from Rufus, who has all-too-brief screen time in the first film)), a broader sense of the future and Bill and Ted’s part in it (the NPCs have lives of their own, and Bill and Ted are in the warp and weft of society whereas Excellent Adventure only had futuristic figures sitting in a room literally doing nothing but waiting for Bill and Ted). Where Excellent Adventure suggested a vague, if unique, utopia, Bogus Journey revels in it whenever it can. The montage at the end may be a prime example of the movies’ silliness, but it actually ties in Bill and Ted’s importance and their message along with the silliness of the world.
The filmmaking has some more fun too, making references to Star Trek and The Seventh Seal. To be frank, these movies are Bob Ross-ian in their happy accidents. The location for Bill and Ted’s deaths just happened to be where a Star Trek episode was filmed, so they had the crew watch the episode in the scene leading to their demise and made sure to film in precisely the same spot. George Carlin was just available. I digress …
Where the first movie only incidentally concerned itself history, Bogus Journey more fully embraces discussions about religion and the meaning of life, better dovetailing with and nurturing the theme to “Be excellent to each other.” As the movie progresses, Bill and Ted, while just arbitrarily important in Excellent Adventure, become more suitable vessels for this message in Bogus Journey. No matter how ill-suited they seem for society, Bill and Ted are its saviors. No matter what obstacles they face, their innocent hearts will guarantee their success. And no matter what, just be excellent to each other.
Oh, and those personalized hell rooms were tiiiiiight for all the right reasons — smartly shot, atmospherically appropriate to the universe, actually exploring characters, etc.
Things feel more at risk with Bogus Journey. Bill & Ted died, goddamn it. (The film’s working title was Bill and Ted Go to Hell.) Will they get seanced back into the physical realm? Can they possess people? Can they beat Death? If they do, what next? God? The Devil? But what next? What next? There’s more excitement, and the movie’s embrace of the bizarre brings a certain sense of unpredictability to it.
Bogus Journey is more interesting because it ventures into the bizarre and does so successfully. Both movies are good at what they do, but Bogus Journey seems to have loftier goals and more attempts at vivid imagination. The sequel is exactly what we would have expected a Bill and Ted sequel to look like — just more so. And, as we know where sequels are concerned, meeting those expectations means exceeding most sequels in the first place. But Bogus Journey lives up to the premises established by the first, expands them and takes more risks.
I do love both movies. But a significant part of me will always scream to be given death robots constructed by future-hopping villains in a universe that has aliens.
But I will admit, even with all this silliness and playfulness with the inherent contradictions of time travel, a Martian scientist who only says one English word is probably an odd bridge too far.
1 My favorite by far is Missy, the woman around Bill and Ted’s age who is dating Bill’s father and demands to be called Mom. Her matronly aspirations lead her to making food for the boys, but her youthful inexperience keeps her trapped to grilled cheese sandwiches, and burnt ones at that. Ted’s father’s threat to send him to military school in Alaska also sounds like the worst possible location for a Californian teen, and something I’m sure the ’80s youth audience understood immediately. Ted’s comment that Napoleon’s invasion of Russia probably won’t work qualifies as well.